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Curricula: left, right or on course?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At Northwestern University, where I went to college just a few years ago, one of the most popular classes on campus was "Psychology of Human Sexuality."

Throngs of students eagerly awaited the one quarter a year it was offered and spent days plotting ways to land a coveted spot in the class to study "sexual development and differentiation, deviations, dysfunctions and controversies in sexology," as the course catalog enticingly promised. (One session included watching part of a "Guide to Better Sex" video.)

I'm pretty sure the Young America's Foundation would not have approved of the course. The conservative group, which is committed to promoting "traditional values" among America's young, recently released its sixth annual study of "ridiculous college classes" being taught in 56 temples of higher learning across the country.

"Comedy & Tragedy: College Course Descriptions and What They Tell Us About Higher Education Today" is an 86-page study the Herndon, Va.-based foundation compiles and distributes to let parents know what their kids are learning in school and inform taxpayers how universities are spending their money. The study features a list of courses that the organization deems "trendy, bizarre and politically biased," such as:

"The Bible and Horror," a Georgetown University theology class that will examine the question of "What might religion and horror (or the monstrous) have in common?"

"Music and Gender," a women's studies class at Bowdoin College in Maine which will discuss: "Is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony a marvel of abstract architecture, culminating in a gender-free hymn to human solidarity, or does it model the processes of rape? Why do we expect drummers in both jazz and rock bands to be male?"

"Sex and Death," a history class at Carnegie Mellon University, where students will study "why and how people had sex and how this changed as society became more modern."

"College course descriptions show a curriculum in which traditional subjects are being eliminated or adapted to reflect the ideological concerns of faculty leftists," the foundation asserts in the introduction to the study. "The courses show a preoccupation with sex, race and class and a continuing affinity for Marxism."

Of course, the survey comes with its own political baggage, carried out by a group that organizes an annual "National Conservative Student Conference" and sells posters, video clips and even computer screensavers of former President Ronald Reagan on its Web site, www.yaf.org.

Every year, a foundation program officer and five summer interns undertake the task of sifting through the course catalogs of more than 50 colleges, picking five to 10 objectionable courses from each school. The foundation picks the suspect colleges from another annual list, the U.S. News & World Report list of top universities in America, which includes Ivy League, state and private colleges.

Rick Parsons, who oversaw the study this year, said his organization began compiling the list in 1995 when college students attending its conventions reported a disturbing number of "outrageous" classes on their campuses.

What qualifies a course as outrageous?

"We pick courses that don't have anything to do with actual academics," Parsons explained, "or if their ideology is one-sided, if it doesn't give both sides of an argument."

Parsons pointed out two examples of current courses he says are "biased." One is a sociology class at Bucknell University titled "Women and Social Inequality," which he said "concentrates on perceived inequalities of women in society without giving any other side of the issue." Then there is a University of Michigan English class called "How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation," whose course description reads, "Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn't mean that you don't have to learn how to become one. Gay men do some of that learning on their own, but often we learn how to be gay from others."

It's not an argument about just the homosexuality part of it," Parsons said. "It's also the taxpayers' money being spent on a course that caters to a very, very small part of the population."

The list gets the foundation a lot of media attention each year, prompting calls from parents and grandparents upset by the course descriptions and asking what they can do about them, Parsons said. But so far, he admitted, no college has pulled a class from its schedule because of the study.

Targets of the list expressed surprise -- and sometimes pride -- that they were on it.

Tod Linafelt, a Georgetown University assistant professor who put together the course "The Bible and Horror," had not heard of the foundation or its list before, but after checking out the study on its Web site, he said he was "flattered to be among such company."

The study, he said, seems to reflect "a suspicion of academia which is so prevalent in conservative circles."

The foundation "never called to say, 'What's this course about?' " said Linafelt, whose students will be required to do in-depth readings of the Bible and compare it with such literary works as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula."

"Clearly what is behind the list is a political agenda that wants to exclude from our public conversations the experience of women, African-Americans and gays, as well as anyone who might think that unchecked capitalism is not an unmitigated good," Linafelt said. "I have to keep reminding myself that YAF does not stand for 'Young American Fascists.' "

Kevin Foster, an instructor who will teach "Race and Sport in African American Life" at the University of Texas this fall, said he was "humored" by the attention from the foundation.

The description of his course, taught at the University of Texas for the past several years, states that students will "explore the extent to which black participation in both leisure and elite athletics has promoted the well-being and development of the black community, but also how sports have been used to justify and promote antiquated, eugenic and ultimately racist notions of blackness."

"This is a topic that a lot of the kids are interested in and have a lot of misconceptions about," Foster said. "It's going to complicate their notions of race. We're really breaking down a lot of stereotypes.

"It's part of the education process," he added. "Our goal is to educate broadly. Even if you come in with the goal of becoming a chemist, it doesn't mean we're not also going to teach you how to write or think critically in other arenas."

Which brings us back to the "Psychology of Human Sexuality" class at Northwestern University. Prurient interest, of course, had nothing to do with why students like myself flocked to sign up for it. We were on a quest for scientific knowledge, understanding of the human condition and that sort of serious academic stuff. And it certainly taught us to think critically, if not about sex, then about consequences: Back home at the end of the semester, we knew the transcript our parents saw listed the class only as "Psychology B50."

It seems like the folks at the Young America's Foundation could possibly use some help in that area themselves. Or maybe just some help doing their homework. Somehow Psychology B50, which is being offered again this year at Northwestern, has not yet made its list.

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